Pumpelly, Raphael

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(b.Owego, New York, 8 September 1837; d. Newport, Rhode Island, 10 August 1923)

geology, geography, ethnology, archaelogy.

Pumpelly received his early education in private schools and in the Owego Academy, following which he attended the New Haven Collegiate and Commercial Academy for two years. He had thought to enter Yale, but in 1854 went instead to Europe with his mother. In the course of this tour, which lasted for several years, his interest in geology started; in his memoirs(My Reminiscences, published in 1928) he gave an account of a journey in 1855 through the Rhine Valley to the Drachenfels and the Laacher See, adding “Truly I was entering, though gropingly, into geology through the gate of romance.” He met von Roemer, and, subsequently, visited Switzerland, France, Italy, and Corsica and observed the grandeur of their mountains, volcanoes, and solfataras. In Vienna he by chance met Emil Noggerath, who advised him to enroll at the Freiberg Bergakademie.

Pumpelly entered the Bergakademie in 1856, and studied mining engineering and geology with Weisbach, Breithapt, and von Cotta, who had particular influence upon him. He remained at Freiberg until 1860, a period that he interrupted to return to Corsica for several months. Pumpelly’s memorialist and friend, Bailey Willis, suggests that it was during these years that Pumpelly formulated his chief investigative technique, that of drawing hypotheses from the two vantage points of sequential and multiple analysis.

Upon his return to the United States in 1860, Pumpelly received his first professional assignment when he was put in charge of the development of the Santa Rita silver mine in southern Arizona. The area was under constant siege by Apache Indians, and the smelting operations were performed hurriedly; Pumpelly nevertheless remained for a year, and conducted an independent geological study of the area, the results of which were presented before a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences in August 1861.

While in California Pumpelly received an appointment from the government of Japan to undertake a survey of the mineral resources of the Japanese empire and immediately sailed for that country, where he remained for about one year. In 1862 he went on to China, where he studied coal deposits and visited Peking. In 1865 he returned to West China, traveling overland through Mongolia, Siberia, and St. Petersburg; he summed up his experiences of almost five years of travel in the Orient in two works, “Geological Researches in China, Mongolia, and Japan”(1867)and “Across America and Asia”(1870). His adventurous spirit is apparent in both, particularly in his accounts of meeting the resistance of foreign officials and of the physical hardship of travels to the edge of the Tibetan desert.

Several months after his return to the United States, Pumpelly was offered the chair of mining at Harvard University, which he never occupied formally because the salary was too low. Since he was more interested in exploration and fieldwork, he turned instead to a study of the copper and iron deposits of the region surrounding Lake Superior, which he continued, with interruptions, from 1866 until 1877. In 1869 he settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and married Eliza Frances Shepard there in the same year.

From 1871 until 1872 Pumpelly served as geologist to the state of Missouri but resigned because of ill health. He then went to live in Balmville, New York, where he began work on the problem of the origin of metal-bearing ores. He returned to Michigan at intervals, and his major report on the copper-bearing rocks of that region was published in 1873. This paper represented pioneering work in two ways; in it Pumpelly both employed thin sections in petrographic examinations(according to B.Willis he was probably the first to do so in the United States)and recognized for the first time that copper was indigenous to the series of rocks in which it occurred. He did, however, continue to believe that copper was accumulated from the host rocks by the action of outside factors, most notably that of seawater, since the indigenous aqueous magmatic phase, that is, the hydrothermal or deutric water, was not given its full importance at that time.

Pumpelly’s contribution toward solving the problem of the origin of the Chinese loess—and of loess desposits in general—is also especially noteworthy. His “Relation of Rock-Disintegration to Loess, Glacial Drift, and Rock Basins” was published in the American Journal of Science in 1879. In his pioneering study, F.P.W. Von Richthofen had recognized the transport and deposition of loess by wind; to this Pumpelly added the notion that the deep decay of rocks in loess. Von Richthofen himself acknowledged the value of Pumpelly rsquo;s results.

From 1879 until about 1890 Pumpelly was concerned with organizing and directing a series of official geological surveys. He was first engaged in a survey, carried out in connection with the census of the mineral resources of the United States, exclusive of precious metals and petroleum. This investigation lasted until 1881, when Pumpelly undertook an economic survey of the resources and properties along the route of a projected northwestern railway, called the Northern Transcontinental Survey. His biographer Willis served on his staff.

In 1884 Pumpelly was placed in charge of the New England section of the United States Geological Survey. He investigated the Precambrian terrains of the region, especially the structure of the Green Mountains, largely in cooperation with C.R. Van Hise and R.D. Irving. His report, “Geology of the Green Mountains in Massachusetts,” was published in 1894 and represented the application to this subject of all of Pumpelly’s vast experience with ongoing geological processes. In it he discussed, among other things, the changes in facies that had previously been explained as faulting, tracing the fossil record of metamorphosed tocks, His great knowledge of the foreign literature is exemplified by his application of Albert Heim’s principles of orogenic machanisms to the New England areas. This was his last work in the public service.

From 1893 until 1895 Pumpelly traveled with his family in Europe, visiting mainly Italy, France, and Switzerland. Returning to the United States, he then worked on various consulting tasks (including some in the Lake Superior area) until 1903, when he embarked on the great exploration project that took him twice to Central Asia, in that year and the folliowing. He jourenyed to Turestan with his son, aphal W. Pumpelly, and with W. M. Davis and Ellsworth Huntington, under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. The chief purpose of these expeditions was to datermine “the physical basis of the human history,” and to this end they combined geology, archaeology, and ethnology. In connection with this research Pumpelly also visited major museims in Europe ad Russia, and made a side trip to Egypt to study the rate of growth of village mounds.

Elected president of the Geologocal Socoety of America in 1905, Pimpelly chose for his address (delivered in Ottawa in 1906) a major topic arising from his Central Asian researches, “Interdependent Evolution of Oases and Civilizations,” He then apent three years completing the reports on this work, which appeared as the general and geological account “Archeological and Physico-Geographical Reconnaissance in Turkestan,” Carnegie Institution Publication No. 26, Explorations in Turkestan…1903 (1905), and the ethnologically oriented “Ancient Anau and the Oasis World,” Caregie Institution Publication No. 73, Explorations in Turkestan . . . 1904 (1908).

The result of the work of Pumpelly and his team included their proff that in several glacial perods High Asoa had benen covered by the ice then withdrew, leaving an inland sea, of which the shores are still visible, as Pumpelly reported in 1908. The earliest men in the region, he went on, must have settld on the edges of the post-glacial lakes that remain only as the Transcaspian oases; he pointed out evidence of communities, agriculture, and domestic animals. The desiccation of the regin then forced the migration of its early inhabitants, and they spread out in various directions, into Europe among others. Although Pumpelly had long been interested in the origin of the Aryans, and although he wrote a section on this question, he chose to suppress it, since he thought that the observations that he and his colleagues had made on this point were too meager to justify any conclusion. (This restraint in publishing is typical of his career, as was his willingness in the cours of these and other studies to encourage his co-wokers to publish their own work over their won names.)

Pumpelly’ work in general—in geology, geography, and ethnology—may beat be understood as a reflection of his personal approach to research. He insisted on the separation of observation and interpretation; he was firm in his belief that observation must be objective. He made a number of new teachniques (as, for example, his use of the microscope to examine thin sections of rocks in his petrogrphic studies of the Lake Superior region), but was often content to leave the description of details to others. He chose to reach a working hypothesis from two sides, through sequential analyses and multiple analyses, a method derived from his student years under von Cotta and Breithaupt. In his fairness and generosity in his dealings with his colleagues, he was an example to others. He was particularly skilled in organizing and conducting interdisciplinary research, perhaps implied by his inner need to study man and mankind, rather than specific problems divorced from the totality of life.

Pumpelly spent the last twelve years of his life at his winter and summer residences in Newport, Rhode Island, and Dublin, New Hampshire. His wife died in 1915; he survived her for eight years, and was himself survived by one two daughters. In 1925 a mineral from the Lake Superior copper district was named “pumpellyite” in his honor.


I. Original Works. pumpelly’s major works include “Geological Researches in China, Mongolia, and Japan in 1862-1865”, which is in Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 15(1867); “The Para genesis and Derivation of copper and Its Associates on Lake Superior”, in American Journal of Science, 3rd ser., 2(1874), 188-198, 243-258, 347-355; “Copper District”, in Geological Survey of Michigan; Upper Peninsula, 1869-1873, I, pt. 2(New York, 1873); “Meta somatic Development of the Copper-bearing Rocks of Lake Superior”, in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, (1878)253-310; “The Relation of Secular Rock Disintegration to Loess, Glactical Drift, and Rock Basins”, in American Journal of Science, 3rd ser., 17(1879), 133-144; “The Relation Secular Rock Distengration to Certain Transitional Crystalline Schist”, in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 2(1891), 209-223; and My Reminiscences, 2 vols. (New York, 1918).

II. Secondary Literature. The best work on pumpelly and his career is Bailey Willi’s memorial in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 36(1925), 45-84, with portrait and bibliography, and in American Journal of Science, ser. 5, 6 (1923), 375–376.

G. C. Amstutz